Steve Russell left Iraq, but Iraq hasn’t really left him.
The former Army lieutenant colonel, who was in charge of one of the units that eventually found Saddam Hussein, earned his spot in an Oklahoma August 26 congressional runoff to fill the seat vacated by former Representative James Lankford. Russell snagged 26.6 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary, which constitutes as a lead in what was a six-person field. He faces Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas, who narrowly trailed Russell with 24.5 percent.
Since the successful capture of Saddam Hussein, Russell has devoted his life to commemorating military service and by proxy reliving the events of Operation Red Dawn, the mission that nabbed Saddam. He even wrote a book, We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam, for which there was an extensive book tour.
After serving in the Oklahoma State Senate from 2008 to 2012, the former lieutenant colonel decided not to run again and instead created a rifle manufacturing business that specializes in replicating “the full military appearance of the Iraqi Tabuk style rifle,” according to the company website. The slogan of Two Rivers Arms Company is “building what soldiers could not bring home,” a testament to Russell’s efforts to glorify military operations in Saddam-era Iraq. Two Rivers functions like a fanboy gift shop with impeccable replica items. The Tabuk rifles cost anywhere between $1,250 and $1,750 (with manual included!) and the display images on the website show instructions written in Arabic.
It should come as no surprise then that he has made headlines recently for his past comments about the presence of a weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq in 2003. Mother Jones magazine’s Tim Murphy dubbed him “one of the leading voices advancing the discredited claim” that the WMD program did in fact exist. But ahead of the late summer runoff, Russell is trying to get his own record straight.
“Here’s the simple fact, a zippe centrifuge was found by Saddam’s nuclear physicist,” Russell told the Daily Beast. “You say, what’s the big deal? What’s a zippe centrifuge? Really? Don’t people understand the historic significance of that?”
Russell is referring to the piece of technology that Iraq’s leading nuclear physicist, Dr. Mahdi Shukur Ubaydi, had in his possession in 2003. The centrifuge was buried in his backyard, though. Claims that a set of aluminum tubes that were unearthed in Iraq in 2002, initially believed to be vital elements of potential uranium centrifuges that could have been used to develop weapons of mass destruction, were also dismissed. At the time, then-national security advisor Condoleeza Rice said that the tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.” It was later revealed that four CIA officials as well as two other senior administration officials had told Rice’s staff that the tubes were likely destined for production as artillery rockets. Over a decade later, as the United States faces new challenges in the region, the theory of WMDs has long been maligned as a massive foreign policy blunder orchestrated by the Bush administration.
“Let me name the only countries that have ever acquired a zippe centrifuge,” Russell said. “Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea. What do they all have in common? They all have nuclear capability.”
Iraq is most certainly the main issue that sticks in Russell’s craw and recent U.S. military operations there have given him the green light to make it an essential part of his campaign. He asks people to “enlist today” on his website, above the options of donating and volunteering, even though the rifle company doesn’t get a great deal of attention. Russell’s campaign logo has a gold star prominently featured and he appears on his own website in military fatigues. It’s certainly a hawkish approach, predicating an entire congressional campaign on military service, but recent foreign policy decisions by the Obama administration have granted Russell a set of talking points that include Benghazi, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and Hillary Clinton.
“Why did the State Department loosen the security requirements for outposts in the hope of showing normality when the reality was that they were in grave danger?” Russell said of the 2012 Benghazi embassy attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Stevens. “It begs the question: why were they violated?”
Russell wouldn’t respond directly when The Daily Beast asked if the implication in these remarks is that Hillary Clinton is at fault. “I invite you to go look at what was passed after the Tanzania and Kenya bombings and what the requirements were,” Russell said. “It put in place protocols for what the loosening would be. And I just invite to go back and look at those and ask, was that followed? And if not, why?”
This is by no means the first time that Russell has been critical of the Obama administration. In 2009, he infamously equated one of the president’s speeches on education to moves by dictators—including that Iraqi strongman that Russell can’t seem to forget.
“This is something you’d expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” Russell said of Obama’s speech imploring students to work hard in school.
The year before, Russell blasted Barack Obama for saying that troops should be withdrawn from Iraq.
“As a former soldier—one who, I’m proud to say, played a part in the capture of Saddam Hussein more than four years ago—I am sickened by the stubborn unwillingness to see good news from Iraq when it is beginning to stare all of us in the face,” Russell wrote in a 2008 piece for The New York Daily News. These clips are all listed under the media section of Russell’s campaign site.
These are larger questions and considerations that Russell hopes to address should he make it to Congress. But for now, he’s relying on grassroots efforts, the support of his campaign brothers in arms, to propel him forward against people outspending or outshooting him.
“How do you take a few rounds of ammunition and make sure that those rifle shots hit?” Russell asked.
Maybe some Saddam-era Iraqi rifles would do the trick.